Throughout its 3.5yrs existence, there have been a number of instances where ‘London Shoes’ has (totally unintentionally) just happened to be in the right place at the right time – when something unusual, newsworthy or historically interesting has happened.
Such an occasion happened last week, when ‘Shoes’ visited a long standing and notable London landmark that had been shut-down for the past decade, and had only just re-opened a few days before London Shoes visit.
So – the subject matter for this week’s blog is “Finsbury Circus” – the oldest and largest public park in the City of London’s ‘Square Mile’!!!
Now – the name ‘Circus’ has absolutely nothing to do with dancing elephants, trapeze artists or clowns driving exploding cars – the term derives from Latin origins and quite simply means an ‘elliptical’ shape or space.
Not to be confused with Finsbury Square or Finsbury Park, which are located further north – Finsbury Circus is located in the Moorgate district of the City, right next to Moorgate station and just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Liverpool Street station main-line terminal.
Historic records show that as far back as the early 1500’s when some parts of the city was partly rural – there was a plot of land known as ‘Finsbury Manor’ on the site of today’s Finsbury Circus site.
In 1600 the area was raised and planted with trees becoming a public park, the first in London, in 1606.
In 1812 the park became enclosed and in 1815, popular landscaper Charles Dance (the Younger) was commissioned to redesign the park – and he introduced many differing varieties of plants, trees and flowers, and even a circuit of lime trees.
Massive magnificently designed majestic houses encircled Finsbury Circus – occupied by wealthy merchants, solicitors and other well to do, and well-off professional people – plus establishments such as university offices, exclusive schools and societies – and Finsbury Circus became the private gardens for these wealthy residents.
By the mid 1800’s when the rail network really started to develop – Finsbury Circus was threatened with demolition so that a brand new railway station could be built on its site. A huge public outcry ensued, protesting against such an action – and the proposal for a new station was eventually dropped.
However in 1869 a large tunnel was dug underneath Finsbury Circus which linked up to the Metropolitan Railway that ran through the City.
In the early 1900’s Finsbury Circus was compulsory purchased by the City of London Corporation, and returned again to being a public park – a decision that didn’t go down at all well with the wealthy residents encircling the ‘Circus’ as they felt that their house prices would drop considerably with riff-raff loitering around in the gardens.
The person assigned with transforming Finsbury Circus back into a public park area, was the renowned architect ‘Alpheus Morton’ – and for quite a while after, the park was known briefly as “Morton’s Park”.
Throughout the decades of the 1900’s Finsbury Circus became a very popular recreation area for city workers to have their lunch in the fresh air or linger around in the evenings after work, before setting off back home to the ‘burbs’. Throughout those decades the ‘Circus’ acquired a lawn bowls green – a badminton court & a basketball court.
Another claim-to-fame unique to the history of Finsbury Circus – is that since 1957, it has been the ‘finishing point’ of the annual “Miglia Quadrato” motor event – a very strange event to hold in the middle of one of the world’s busiest City’s.
The annual ‘Miglia Quadrato’ motor event start at the time of the Suez Crisis when fuel was very short in supply, and to keep spirits high, it was decided to hold some sort of motoring event with a difference, in the City of London.
The event comprises of teams of 6 (very convenient for the current Covid19 rules at the time of this blog) – and these teams have to drive around the City in all sorts of vehicles, for 5 hours trying to find the answers to 60 clues – 20 difficult – 20 medium – 20 easy, all within a 5 mins per clue timescale challenge – and the finishing point has always been Finsbury Square.
However, in 2010 the unique splendor, peace & tranquillity and popularity of Finsbury Circus ended abruptly, when it was completely closed to the public.
The park area was completely dug up and a 42 foot deep shaft excavated as part of the massive ‘Crossrail’ project – the new rail network that will link all of London’s mainline terminal stations, plus other most used stations (tube & overground) so that you can travel from the east, right through to London Heathrow Airport.
Finsbury Circus remained closed for the next decade, as the Crossrail excavation and engineering teams completely took over the area, and carved up the entire park area, to dig out tunnels along with new and additional station platforms, in the subterranean world underneath the Finsbury Circus site.
Crossrail was supposed to be up and running and fully operational in 2018 – however, unsurprisingly, that hasn’t happened as the Crossrail project has gone way over budget and many deadlines have been missed – and the latest completion date has been put back to 2021.
However – after an absence of 10 long years, and following a massive clear-up operation by Crossrail engineers – good old Finsbury Circus re-opened again to the public, just a few days before this London Shoes visit (I wasn’t aware of any of this until I got there).
Although the lawn bowling green, the basketball court, the badminton court and the colourful flower beds and other floral displays were all removed as part of the excavation work – a brand new lawn has been laid out, and I’m guessing that it won’t be too long before Finsbury Circus gets back to how it once looked.
The road encircling Finsbury Circus is still rammed with Crossrail related vehicles and engineering fixtures & fittings, but again, when Crossrail eventually opens – these ‘road residents’ will gradually become less and less – leaving Finsbury Circus to return to as it should be.
Although the park itself was full of rail and construction engineers when I was there, it was good to see some ‘office workers’ (those that weren’t ‘working from home’ obviously) mingled in with them, eating their lunch or simply enjoying a coffee in the ‘new normal’ fresh air.
So – having spent a couple of hours enjoying the newly re-opened Finsbury Circus – whilst I was in the City’s ‘Square Mile’ I thought I would take a short stroll across town to track down the site where once stood ‘St. Swithins House’ a building just across the road from the Bank of England, – a place where I worked for a few years when I left the Barclays Bank branch network in 2001 after a 30 year stint – and joined a head-office team.
St. Swithins House was an old building even then, and it used to be the main Barclays ‘Clearing House’ where all the transactions of cheques & credits that had taken place in Barclays branches, went off to every night to be ‘processed’ through the Bank’s ‘clearing systems’.
At the time I arrived at St. Swithins House in 2001, the mechanics of ‘clearing’ transactions was changing fast. The building itself was from another era and commercially was probably on its last legs and wasn’t really fit-for-purpose in the ‘modern’ world.
Upon starting my new head-office role at St. Swithins House, where I was working totally on my own – I was given a desk in what was no more than a broom cupboard situated in a darkened basement with no natural light – and was given a lap-top (had never ‘worked’ one in my life before) and a business mobile phone, and told to get on with it. To say I felt like a fish out of water is an understatement – but it was the only way to learn and very soon I enjoyed every minute of it.
I knew that the old St. Swithins House had been pulled down long ago, but I didn’t know that the whole of its old site and the buildings that had surrounded it, had also been completely regenerated – the old lane looked nothing like it did when I worked there in the early ‘noughties’ – There now stands a massive modern office complex on the old St. Swithins House, and the surrounding area was nothing like it used to be – but I was pleased that I took time out to track it down.
I then headed off to Liverpool Street Station to catch a train back home, and again, like the rest of the London I’ve witnessed every week over the past month or so – it was a bit surreal to see a usually manically busy main line London inter-connected rail & tube station that on average sees in excess of 63 million passenger entrances & exits per year – looking so spookily quiet and underwhelmed. So, I took a seat on its main concourse and got stuck in to a tasty M&S chicken & bacon sarnie washed down with a bottle of fizzy pink stuff – before heading off back home following another interesting & enjoyable day out.
See below the entire gallery of photos taken to support this blog